On my first tour of a new client hospital, we encountered a snarky employee who didn’t say hello as we passed, nor did he greet anyone else in the hallway. When we greeted him, he didn’t make eye contact but only grunted some unintelligible sound. When I asked if this was typical, the person giving me the tour said, “Yea, pretty much. That’s just ‘Joe’.” Since we had been engaged to do a culture assessment, this short interaction gave me some important insight into the organization. ‘Joe’ was permitted to behave this way. No one was calling him on his behavior and telling him that it didn’t fit the culture. The danger in that is then Joe’s behavior becomes normalized in the culture.
We’re hearing a lot these days about pre-existing conditions. In insurance terms, a pre-existing condition is a condition you had before your first day of coverage on a new plan. It is often something that cannot be easily changed like diabetes, heart disease, or arthritis. When an insurance company is forced to take on an often costly member, they often balk, feeling stuck. They want to insure the healthy population who won’t dig into their profits. That’s a no-brainer for an insurance company.
Many organizations are tolerating the Joes of the world like their attitudes are pre-existing conditions. With that mindset, they’re stuck with Joe and he’s going to cost them. Why is Joe allowed to stay? Maybe because it’s too tedious to do all the paperwork and follow up to get them out. Maybe because it’s awkward to confront Joe about his attitude. Maybe Joe is an informal leader and the manager fears mutiny. Or maybe the culture has gotten so used to the Joes on staff that the grouchy behavior and disrespect has become normalized.
Joe’s attitude isn’t a pre-existing condition to be tolerated. No, it’s something that could have been identified early and either cured or managed effectively to prevent further damage to the organization’s morale and reputation. But too often, employers shrug their shoulders with a “What can you do?” response. This passive posture is an open door for culture corrosion.
First, define what you want the culture to be. If you haven’t done this, how will you know if behaviors are aligned or not? Next, share expectations for all members of the team and spell out the non-negotiables. Then, follow through consistently. Hire for attitude as well as technical skill, or it will cost you more thank you know.